Our house: histories of Australian homes

Dianne Firth
Australian Heritage Commission, 2001

39 - A modest family home in Ainslie

Australian Capital Territory

Julie on the front verandah of her Ainslie home in 1997.

Julie on the front verandah of her Ainslie home in 1997.

There is in the Canberra suburb of Ainslie a small park surrounded by modest family homes on 'quarter-acre' blocks that were built by the Commonwealth government between 1938 and 1940. Most of the original 'heads of house' worked with the Defence Forces although some others worked in trade industries. The nearest shops were several miles away at Civic, but the area was serviced by a grocer, greengrocer, butcher, baker and milkman who came regularly with their horse and cart and later motorised vans.

The park was popular with children, particularly for cricket and bonfires until the park and street trees, planted in the late 1950s, grew too large. Blocks were initially planted with privet front hedges, although after 1954 many of the hedges were removed when the government stopped its free maintenance service.

Most blocks had a cat or a dog and many had hens. Some had aviaries, goats, sheep and horses. Fruit trees and vegetable gardens were common, as were swings, brick barbecues and 44 gallon drum incinerators.

Almost sixty years later, some of the houses are still owned by the government. The others are privately owned on Canberra's leasehold title and owner-occupied or rented, some to groups of young people. Several of the houses have been enlarged and generally maintain the original character. Most of the gardens have removed their hedges and, unencumbered by fences, the front lawn extends to the footpath.

Front and back gardens have a scattering of mature trees. The box elder (Acer negundo) street trees are not growing well and several have been removed. The gum trees (Eucalyptus bicostata) in the park have grown to form mature handsome specimens and the early alternating border planting of plum trees (Prunus blieriana) and wattle trees (Acacia bailyana) have had the wattles removed.

The verandah at Ainslie during snowfall in 1987.

The verandah at Ainslie during snowfall in 1987.

This house is on a 989 square metre wedge-shaped block facing west onto the park. The original three bedroom house of 90 square metres has a timber frame construction with fibrous cement cladding and brick skirt with a roof of glazed ceramic tiles. Initially, electricity was provided primarily for lighting. Heating was provided by a Metters fuel stove in the kitchen, a laundry copper, a chip heater over the bath and a fireplace in the lounge room. As a consequence, the wood pile was an essential component of the 'yard'.

The toilet was inside and separate to the bathroom, the laundry, although a part of the house, was accessed by a separate outside door. Outside the house, concrete drive strips, concrete paths to front and back doors, swinging horizontal clothes line, privet (Ligustrum lucidum) front hedge, pyracantha (Pyracantha augustifolia) side hedge to the line of the house, chain-wire gate and enclosing paling fence were also provided. The outside was painted with white kalsomine paint.

The first tenants of the government-owned house were Mr and Mrs Luton and their three children. After the husband's death, the wife remarried and as Mr and Mrs Ellis, bought the house from the government. Since then the house has had three owners.

The first owners, the Ellis', progressively made changes to the property over the next 30 years. Mr Ellis was a painter by trade and later worked as a security officer involving night shifts. He built a garage, changed the internal structure of the house by removing the wall between the lounge room and third bedroom, blocked off doorways, added a verandah with wrought iron detailing, installed a partially above-ground, plastic-lined swimming pool, a pool room and a sunroom with a drink bar.

Refurbished kitchen with its still functional fuel stove and dining alcove extension.

Refurbished kitchen with its still functional fuel stove and dining alcove extension.

A large aviary was installed in the garden. The parallel clothes line was replaced with a rotary one. Mrs Ellis liked reading and sitting in the sun in the garden or on the verandah. Mr Ellis loved the pool and spent a lot of time swimming in it. They planted fruit trees and ornamental trees, but were not enthusiastic about the vegetable garden.

In the 1980s the second owner was Cynthia Fisk. Initially as a single woman she shared the house with two other women. Later, she married and her husband brought his two children to live in the house. During this period the fireplace was boarded over, oil heating was introduced and French doors opening onto verandahs were installed in place of the windows. The kitchen was renovated with timber veneer cladding on the cupboards.

The third and present owners, Kevin and Julie Bradley, bought and moved into the white house with red-brown trim in 1985. With a new daughter Jac, they slowly started renovating the house. The kitchen was gutted, carpets were lifted and timber floors were sanded. When more space was needed, plans were drawn up for a studio and dining alcove extension. Kevin took out a builder's licence and apart from subcontracting some of the tasks requiring licensed expertise, built the addition of approximately 30 square metres himself.

Elements of the old house have been retained. The bathroom has its original bath with shower over it and the adjacent room containing the toilet has a refurbished Metters Monarch flush system with the original chain and wooden hand-pull. The kitchen still has the original fuel stove in its chimney alcove although electric stove and hot water system have reduced the need for the wood pile.

Kevin and Julie have been careful to keep all work sympathetic to the original style of the house. Scale, form, fenestration, weatherboards and details such as mouldings, cornice and picture rails have been reproduced. Second-hand roof tiles for the extension were selected to match those of the original roof, down to ensuring a similar amount of moss growth. Paint colours, although a departure from the original, have been chosen to enhance the heritage feel of the house and the aesthetic sensibilities of the owners.

Kevin and Jac in the front garden in 1987.

Kevin and Jac in the front garden in 1987.

Julie loves to garden and the front garden is her domain. Behind the privet hedge, much taller now than in its government-managed days, a cottage-style garden has been created with perennial plants, bulbs, flowering shrubs, specimen trees and a small patch of grass. A curving red brick path leads to steps at the centre of the verandah.

Now the large back garden is in the process of replanning. The swimming pool is in need of refurbishment or removal and the obsolete brick barbecue looks set to be replaced with a pizza oven. Kevin has constructed a raised vegetable garden from sleepers in order to grow speciality vegetables. Julie grows herbs and a compost heap flourishes. A small lawn surrounds the clothes line and a cubby house nestles amongst the remnants of the aviary. Ground cover species fight for space under the mature fruit and ornamental trees. Future plans are to turn this area into a poetic woodland setting.

Block plans of changes at Ainslie, by Dianne Firth

Block plans of changes at Ainslie, by Dianne Firth

Note: See plan below for key to numbers

Acknowledgements & Bibliography

Much of the information before 1985 was provided by Mrs Marie Lowe, a neighbour since 1942. Both Julie and Kevin Bradley supplied the later information and generously shared their home with me as well as the photographs. The National Library of Australia and map section of the ACT Department of Planning and Land Management were helpful in locating early plans and photographs.

Freeman, P, ed, The early Canberra house. Living in Canberra 1911-1933, The Federal Capital Press, ACT, 1996.

Lyon, L, ed, Voices of old Ainslie. A collection of life-stories from early residents of Ainslie, Louise Lyon, ACT, 1995.

The Author

Dianne Firth is a landscape architect and senior lecturer in the School of Environmental Design at the University of Canberra. With a particular interest in twentieth century Australian design, Dianne has focused her research on the designed landscape of the Australian Capital Territory and the complex interaction of public and private initiatives over time that produce the physical form of the city.